Sixteenth-Century La Española: Glimpses of the First Blacks in the Early Colonial Americas is an exhibit produced by the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute consisting of twenty-five panels of archival documents showcasing different moments in the lives of Black Africans and their island-born descendants in the first European colony in the Americas.
Part of a long-term CUNY DSI project entitled “First Blacks in the Americas
,” this exhibit presents images of manuscripts whose originals are currently held at the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Spain. The manuscripts are accompanied by their paleographic transcriptions and English translations, as well as by contextual historical comments that help readers better understand their content and what the manuscripts say about the earliest Black inhabitants in the Americas.
Through this selection of archival documents, the exhibit intends to call public attention to this almost unknown history. These Blacks were the first to experience the dreadful transatlantic slave trade or, as it was later named, the Middle Passage. They were also the first to actively resist by fleeing shortly after landing in La Española. They were the first to endure and survive all the varied vicissitudes of enslaved labor and enslaved life, and the first to produce new generations of Afro-descendants born in the New World. They were the earliest participants in interethnic unions among different African ethnicities, as well as between Africans and native Tainos, and between Africans and Spaniards or other Europeans.
Besides the existing overviews and general descriptions of the Black experience during the first stages of the colonial process in the New Continent, these manuscripts give us snapshots of specific moments, many of them not described in the existing scholarship. Through these documents, we get concrete glimpses of the lives of these early Blacks in the Americas, providing us with the opportunity to briefly examine the complexities of that experience at both the individual and the collective level. Some of these documents provide only one line referencing Blacks, yet that one line allows us to enter their space and see how they lived during that time. Taking us on a journey 522 years back, the documents demonstrate aspects of Black life that range from the harshest punishments applied to an individual by the early slavery regime, to the expression of long-lasting friendships between people who shared the status of servitude; to engagement in open rebellion; to the experience of personal exhaustion and deprivation when disembarking from a slave ship; or the existential anguish of going from being free in Africa to becoming a slave as a result of kidnapping.
Through this exhibit, the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute hopes to call attention to the widely understudied story of the first Black people to inhabit the Americas after the arrival of European colonizers. Many details of this story still lie dormant in the cumbersome handwriting of sixteenth-century manuscripts from La Española, waiting to shed some light on the beginnings of a fundamental experience in human history.
The images of the manuscripts shown here provide a good sense of the visual challenges researchers often face when studying sixteenth century La Española and the Americas. Yet, we think the quality and significance of the information they contain more than justifies the frequently slow and demanding effort of the transcription and interpretation of such manuscripts, in which the paleographic reading of the script is a fundamental component. In fact, we hope this exhibit encourages more researchers and students to train themselves in early-modern Spanish paleography, so that more minds may be applied to researching the fascinating story of Black people in the early colonial Americas.